Get to know Class of 2024 Commencement speaker Debra Martin Chase

The Cheetah Girls: One World
Debra Martin Chase alongside Sabrina Bryan, Adrienne Bailon Houghton, and Kiely Williams on the set of “The Cheetah Girls: One World.”

Debra Martin Chase is a trailblazer in the entertainment industry and is living her dream by creating meaningful stories about the power of the human spirit. As Gettysburg College’s Class of 2024 Commencement speaker, Chase will share her inspiring journey with our students and their families before our newest graduates head off to pursue their own lives of consequence and meaning.

“I am thrilled to be coming to Gettysburg. Everything I’ve read about the College really resonates with me—Do Great Work, living a consequential life, and the historical location,” Chase said. “It’s an important place and an important college. I’m really honored to be a part of your Commencement this year.”

A 1977 graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Chase left a career in the legal field to pursue her childhood dream of working in the entertainment industry. She was the first Black woman to produce a film that grossed over $100 million at the box office and she was the first African American female producer to have a deal with a major studio. Her production company, Martin Chase Productions, currently has a deal with Universal Television, a division of the NBCUniversal Television Group.

Chase has expanded beyond TV and film to the Broadway stage, where she has won two Tony Awards as a producer for “A Strange Loop” and “Topdog/Underdog”. More recently, she co-produced “The Outsiders” and “Illinoise” which have both been nominated for Best Musical among a combined total of 16 Tony nominations this year

Chase’s unique journey into show business was made possible through the support of family members and mentors who believed in her, as well as her personal drive and determination to reach her goals. From hit movies like “The Princess Diaries,” “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” and “The Cheetah Girls” to her current role as producer of the hit TV series “The Equalizer,” which was recently picked up for a fifth season on CBS, Chase has shared her love of movies and television with a generation of moviegoers, reminding them that in life all things are possible if you believe.

Despite the demands of finishing up production of a hit TV series and co-producing two hit Broadway shows, Chase will break from her busy schedule to address the Class of 2024 outside Pennsylvania Hall on Saturday, May 18, hoping to inspire them to live out their own distinctive dreams.

cast of Top-Dog/Underdog
Chase with the Tony Award winning cast of Top-Dog/Underdog (L-R): Kenny Leon, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Suzan Lori Parks, Corey Hawkins, Debra Martin Chase

Read on to learn more about this year’s Commencement speaker.

Q: Where did you grow up, and how did your early childhood experiences influence your adult life?

Debra Martin Chase: My parents are from Chicago, and when I was 6, I moved to Pasadena, California, so I grew up in southern Cal. My parents divorced when I was 12 and I stayed close to my dad. When I was 15, my mother went back to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and I did my last year of high school at Amherst Regional High School.

My dad was the biggest film and television buff I have ever known. I grew up in a household where we watched TV and little me would walk around and do the whole TV schedule, telling everyone what was on and when. It was always a dream of mine very early on to be able to make film and television. 

Debra Martin Chase
Chase graduated from Harvard Law School in 1981.

Q: What prompted your move from a career in law to entertainment?

DMC: I always loved film and television, but I did not see a lot of people that looked like me in front of the camera and never heard about anyone who liked like me behind the camera. It just seemed impossible. I remember after college sitting there with the Harvard Law School application in one hand and the USC graduate film school application in the other. This one is my heart, but this one makes more sense because it maximizes my options. If I went into film and it doesn’t work, what am I going to do?

I went to law school and ended up working for big corporations and big law firms. I was a really good lawyer, but I didn’t love it. I was operating from a fear of failure as opposed to a desire to do something great in the field. I had also just gotten married and had this life working for a big law firm in Houston, Texas. I was turning 30 and just decided, ‘If not now, then when?’ If I didn’t try to live the life and go for the dream, I never would. I didn’t want to wake up one day and wish I would have done it.

Q: Who have been some of your biggest supporters and mentors?

DMC: I had a lot of good people supporting me and reaffirming that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I could go back to my parents and they never put down boundaries; they always led me to believe that I could do and I could be anything that I wanted to be. I try to pass that on to the young people I work with as well.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great mentors. My first, and maybe the most critical mentor, was Frank Price, who was at the time chairman of Columbia Pictures. Columbia had an executive development program for two years to bring people in from different disciplines to teach them the movie business. It was a huge opportunity to get in and really learn the business. I ended up sitting next to Frank at a program lunch and we hit it off. He brought me on as his executive assistant and I went with him to all these meetings and read scripts for him. He really wanted me to learn and it was invaluable to get that 30,000-feet perspective on the business.

Chase with other people
Prior to starting her own production company Chase ran Whitney Houston’s BrownHouse Productions (1995-2000) and Mundy Lane Entertainment, Denzel Washington’s production company (1992-95).

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments to date?

DMC: In a business that is known for turnover, the fact that I’m still here all these years later and doing pretty well is something I consider a major accomplishment. I have a lot of projects that I’m really proud of that have stood the test of time. There’s also a whole generation of people in Hollywood that I helped discover and nurture in their careers, like Anne Hathaway, Shonda Rhimes, Blake Lively, Jesse Williams, Tracy Oliver, and Raven-Symoné. That’s the thing I’m most proud of because they’ve gone on to do great things and help other people. They’re paying it forward in a sense, and I think that’s important. I was paying forward what people did for me and now they are all paying it forward in their own careers.

Q: What are some memorable moments from the projects you’ve worked on?

DMC: I don’t even know where to begin on that one. “Harriet,” for instance, it was the worst weather they had in years. It just rained the whole time we were on those old plantations and we were just standing around knee deep in mud. It certainly gave authenticity to that movie and we could really imagine what it must have been like for her and that journey she made.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” was extraordinary. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever produced, but while we were doing it, we knew it was going to be extraordinary. We didn’t know 25 years later it was going to be celebrated and still a big deal.

“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” was one of the most beautiful producing experiences I’ve ever had. We spent a month on Santorini in Greece and it was just a lovely group of people.

Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel, and America Ferrera with Chase
Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel, and America Ferrera with Chase during filming for “The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants.”

Q: What’s something that not many people know about you?

DMC: My idea of a great day is to be in bed with the phone off and watching great movies or great TV. People tell me I never rest, and I don’t get to do it often, but that is a great day to me.

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

DMC: I love to travel. I have an apartment in Lisbon, Portugal, and I’ll use that as a jumping off spot to go out and travel around Europe. It’s fun for me to just explore new things, meet new people, and try new food.

The Equalizer cast
“The Equalizer” starring Queen Latifah is in its fourth season on CBS (Photo by Michael Greenberg).

Q: What are you most passionate about?

DMC: In terms of my work, I feel like I have both an enormous opportunity and a responsibility to tell stories that hopefully can make the world a better place—stories that reaffirm the power of the human spirit and remind people that all things are possible. They make you feel good and make you remember the value of friendship, and family, and that life is worth living and celebrating every day. I think it's a huge opportunity that I have been given and earned, and I take it seriously.

Q: What advice do you have for the Class of 2024?

DMC: If you find what you enjoy, what has meaning for you, whatever that is—if it's teaching school, if it's being a parent, if it's being a CEO—you will be good at it, and if you're good at it, you'll be successful. I think we all owe it to ourselves to try and figure out what is that thing that we can uniquely contribute to the world, to our communities, and to our families. Take the time to figure it out.

This year’s Commencement Exercises will take place rain or shine on Saturday, May 18, beginning at 11 a.m. on the Beachem Portico on the north side of Pennsylvania Hall. For more information about Commencement for the Class of 2024, please visit the Commencement website.

By Corey Jewart
Photos courtesy of Debra Martin Chase
Posted: 05/13/24

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